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Discipline Report

Feb. 1, 2018

Discipline Report - February 2018

Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations, and public reprovals in California.

DISBARMENT
Suzanne Kae Biely, Tucson, Arizona
Daniel Americo Bruce, Sanger
Joseph Frieden Hanan, Los Angeles
Gail Judith Higgins, Beverly Hills
Jeffrey Hans Leo, San Gabriel
Shant Ohanian, Oakland
Cary Lee Petersen, Folsom
Kenneth Leon Schreiber, Irvine
Zollie S. Stringer, III, Palo Alto
Kenneth William Szalonek, Covina

SUSPENSION
Benjamin Tyler Brandt, San Diego
Herman Jason Cohen, Encino
Thomas Richard D'Arco, Riverside
Catherine Irene Denevi, Vista
Darryl Wayne Genis, Santa Barbara
Motaz M. Gerges, Northridge
Kyle Sheldon Hackett, Los Angeles
Alexandros Kagianaris, Beverly Hills
Peter D. King, Livermore
Daphne Lori Macklin, Sacramento
James Robert Miller, Redondo Beach
David Charles Peterson, Morro Bay
Steven Robert Rafalovich, Corona Del Mar
Edward Joseph Roenker, Jr., Norfolk, Virginia
Gerald Howard Sternberg, Hazel Park, Michigan

PROBATION
Michael Todd Grehl, Valley Center

PUBLIC REPROVAL
Michael Conroy McMahon, Carpinteria

DISBARMENT

Suzanne Kae Biely, State Bar #158643, Tucson, Arizona (December 30, 2017)

Biely was disbarred by default after she failed to appear at the trial of her disciplinary charges, despite receiving adequate legal notice of it. She did not move to have the default entered set aside or vacated within the time mandated (Rules of Proc. of the State Bar, Rule 5.85).

She was found culpable of two counts of professional misconduct: failing to file a declaration of compliance as directed in an earlier disciplinary order and required by the California Supreme Court (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20) and failing to comply with several other specific conditions attached to that disciplinary probation order.

Biely had one prior discipline record.

Daniel Americo Bruce, State Bar #216514, Sanger (December 30, 2017)

Bruce was disbarred by default after he failed to appear at his disciplinary trial. The State Bar Court judge determined that he had received adequate legal notice of the proceeding.

He was charged with 13 counts of professional misconduct in two client matters and was found culpable of all of them.

His wrongdoing included engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and holding himself out as entitled to practice law when he was not--an act involving moral turpitude. He was also found culpable of two counts each of failing to cooperate in State Bar's disciplinary investigations and failing to report judicial sanctions to the State Bar and six counts of failing to obey various court orders, as well as one count of violating various conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary probation order.

Joseph Frieden Hanan, State Bar #229936, Los Angeles (December 30, 2017)

Hanan was disbarred by default after he failed to participate in his disciplinary proceeding. He had received adequate notice of the matter--at one point promising State Bar representatives that he would file a response to the Notice of Disciplinary Charges served upon him, though he ultimately failed to do so.

He was found culpable of willfully violating state court rules by failing to file a declaration of compliance with the State Bar Court as required in an earlier disciplinary order (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20).

Hanan had been disciplined for professional misconduct twice before.

Gail Judith Higgins, State Bar #164989, Beverly Hills (December 30, 2017)

Higgins was disbarred by default after she failed to participate, either in person or through counsel, at the proceeding charging her with nine counts of professional misconduct related to two client matters. Although she received adequate legal notice of the matter, she did not respond to the State Bar's calls or letters or to the motions filed, nor did she move to have the default order entered set aside or vacated.

The State Bar Court judge dismissed two of the counts charged for failure to establish their factual bases by clear and convincing evidence. However, Higgins was found culpable of the remaining counts, including: failing to notify a client of a significant case development and two counts each of failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to return unearned advanced fees, and failing to participate in the State Bar's investigations of the wrongdoing alleged.

Higgins had one prior record of discipline.

Jeffrey Hans Leo, State Bar #71640, San Gabriel (December 8, 2017)

Leo was disbarred by default after he failed to appear at the trial of his disciplinary charges despite having adequate legal notice and opportunity to do so. He did not seek to have the default order entered in the case set aside or vacated.

He was found culpable of willfully violating a court order requiring him to pay two sanctions totaling $6,120.

Leo had been disciplined by the State Bar for professional misconduct once before.

Shant Ohanian, State Bar #281652, Oakland (December 2, 2017)

Ohanian was disbarred by default. The presiding State Bar Court judge determined he had received adequate legal notice but failed to participate in his disciplinary proceeding, either in person or through counsel.

Ohanian was consequently found culpable of nine counts of professional misconduct related to two client matters: two counts of failing to perform legal services with competence and seven counts of moral turpitude--most of which involved documents he had fabricated.

Cary Lee Petersen, State Bar #173406, Folsom (December 8, 2017)

Petersen was disbarred from practicing law after he stipulated to being culpable of three acts of professional misconduct: failing to update his official member address with the State Bar within 10 days of moving his office, failing to file a declaration of compliance with the State Bar as mandated by the California Supreme Court (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20), and violating several other probation conditions including failing to pay restitution to his clients and failing to file lab reports with the State Bar ensuring abstinence from alcohol and drugs.

In aggravation, Petersen had a prior record of discipline, had committed multiple acts of misconduct, and demonstrated indifference toward rectifying his wrongdoing.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, saving the State Bar significant resources and time.

Kenneth Leon Schreiber, State Bar #42372, Irvine (December 8, 2017)

Schreiber was disbarred from the practice of law after he stipulated to being culpable of six counts of professional misconduct in a single client matter: collecting legal fees from a third party without obtaining the client's prior written consent, failing to maintain the client's funds in trust, failing to provide an accounting of unearned advanced fees and to return them to the client, as well as failing to refund the balance of entrusted funds due the client, and ultimately misappropriating the client's funds--an act involving moral turpitude.

Schreiber was hired to defend a client charged with various felony crimes. Their flat fee retainer agreement specified it covered representation through the preliminary hearing stage, with legal services beyond that dependent upon replenishment of the fee. Both Schreiber and his associate made numerous court appearances on the client's behalf.

During the representation, Schreiber received a total of $155,000 in legal fees--including payments of $102,500 from the client's mother, although the client did not give written consent to that arrangement. The fees were paid in several installments, which Schreiber deposited in his client trust account, then repeatedly applied to pay off the balance his own legal fees, again without the client's prior knowledge or consent.

The client eventually terminated Schreiber's services approximately 17 months before trial, and another attorney was substituted in to represent him at trial. Upon being terminated, Schreiber failed to render the requested accounting of the client's funds, nor did he refund the $25,000 in unearned fees and additional $40,500 entrusted and earmarked for the client's benefit.

While the criminal case was still pending, the client and his mother disputed Schreiber's handling of the fees--ultimately winning an arbitration award of $90,000, which he paid in two installments.

In aggravation, Schreiber committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed his client and had a prior record of professional discipline.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation acknowledging his misconduct.

Zollie S. Stringer, III, State Bar #177758, Palo Alto (December 30, 2017)

Stringer was disbarred by default after he failed to participate in his disciplinary proceeding despite receiving adequate notice and opportunity to do so.

He was found culpable of a single count of professional misconduct: falsely reporting to the State Bar that he had completed the requisite 25 hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education--wrongdoing involving moral turpitude.

Kenneth William Szalonek, State Bar #228803, Covina (December 8, 2017)

Szalonek was disbarred by default after he failed to respond to the Notice of Disciplinary Charges filed against him by the State Bar. He did not move to have the default order subsequently entered against him set aside or vacated.

He was found culpable of 12 acts of professional misconduct related to two client matters. His wrongdoing included falsely representing to a court that his client had reviewed and signed the schedules in his bankruptcy case as well as making false statements to a client--both acts involving moral turpitude.

He was also culpable of two counts each of failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to render appropriate accountings of his clients' funds, failing to promptly release the clients' files and property after being requested to do so, failing to return unearned advanced fees, and failing to cooperate with the State Bar's investigations of his wrongdoing.

There was one additional non-public disciplinary matter pending against Szalonek at the time he was disbarred.

SUSPENSION

Benjamin Tyler Brandt, State Bar #201506, San Diego (December 15, 2017)

Brandt, following an expedited proceeding of limited scope, was suspended from practicing law for 60 days and placed on probation for three years predicated on a bankruptcy court's finding he had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law there.

Both he and the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) of the State Bar had appealed the hearing judge's recommendation of a 60-day suspension. Brandt denied wrongdoing and urged dismissal; the OCTC sought a one-year period of actual suspension.

The OCTC instigated the present proceeding based on a bankruptcy court's finding that Brandt had filed approximately 100 third-party petitions though not admitted to practice before the district court as required by local rules. The three-judge panel of the bankruptcy court found him culpable of the unauthorized practice of law and suspended him from practicing before the bankruptcy court for one year. In a separate order, the bankruptcy judge sanctioned him $1,000. Both the findings and order were served on Brandt at the member address he had given earlier, though he later testified he did not recall receiving them and first found out about the suspension two years later, after the State Bar began its investigation of the matter.

The State Bar Court panel on appeal found that, as a matter of law, Brandt failed to prove either that his professional misconduct in the bankruptcy court did not warrant imposing discipline in California or that those proceedings lacked fundamental constitutional protection.

In aggravation, Brandt committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and was allotted moderate weight for bad faith based on contradictory answers he gave in two separate verified responses and for indifference toward rectification as demonstrated by his delay of more than six years in paying restitution and seeming refusal to accept the bankruptcy court's findings. The panel noted: "That Brandt still does not understand that he was not authorized to practice in the bankruptcy court is particularly troubling because it suggests that he may practice without authorization again."

In mitigation, he was credited for providing community service and pro bono work and given limited mitigation for entering into a stipulation of easily proven facts during trial. In addition, he was given mitigation credit for reference letters provided by 15 individuals taken from a range of the legal and general communities--though the weight of that evidence was reduced because the letters did not disclose whether their authors were aware of the extent of Brandt's misconduct; the authors were not called to testify at trial so could not be cross-examined on the issue.

Herman Jason Cohen, State Bar #188783, Encino (December 4, 2017)

Cohen was suspended from the practice of law pending proof of passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam--one of the terms imposed in an earlier disciplinary order.

Thomas Richard D'Arco, State Bar #79929, Riverside (December 8, 2017)

D'Arco was suspended from practicing law for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing 11 acts of professional misconduct related to six clients, all of whom sought his legal help with home mortgage loan modifications.

Specifically, he was culpable of five counts of unauthorized practice of law based on offering legal services in states in which he was not licensed to practice and five counts of charging and collecting illegal fees for those services.

In one case involving a California resident, a jurisdiction where D'Arco was entitled to practice law, he was culpable of charging and collecting fees to negotiate a loan modification before fully performing the contracted services in violation of state law (Cal. Civ. Code §2944.7(a)(1)).

In aggravation, D'Arco had one prior record of discipline, engaged in a pattern of misconduct--as the prior misconduct also involved mishandling loan modifications, significantly harmed financially vulnerable clients, and showed indifference toward rectifying his wrongdoing by continuing to perform loan modification services in jurisdictions in which he was not authorized to practice after being warned by one State Bar authority not to do so. In addition, while D'Arco made full restitution to four of the six clients and partial restitution to two of them, he did so only after the clients had submitted complaints to State Bar authorities in various states.

In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, acknowledging his misconduct and saving the State Bar time and resources.

Catherine Irene Denevi, State Bar #222539, Vista (December 30, 2017)

Denevi was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for three years following a contested disciplinary proceeding in which she was found culpable of two counts of professional misconduct: withdrawing disputed client funds from her client trust account and then misappropriating them--an act involving moral turpitude.

Denevi represented a client in civil and criminal matters related to a complicated divorce. After several years, however, she withdrew from representation, claiming the client owed approximately $25,000 in past due legal fees.

The client subsequently sought her help with an additional matter--distributing sale proceeds from a house. Denevi agreed, but required a new fee agreement specifying $2,500 of the proceeds would be applied to the past due fee.

She later deposited the $134,125 in sale proceeds received into her client trust account, disbursing $2,500 to herself that same day.

Denevi and the client subsequently had a dispute over the fees charged and owed. Denevi twice sought advice about handling the dispute from the State Bar Ethics Hotline; she was advised to retain the disputed funds in her client trust account and seek a judicial determination of the fee dispute. Denevi also attempted but failed to reach a compromise with the client on the fee issue, sent him a right to arbitrate letter and held the disputed funds in trust until the time for the client to request fee arbitration had passed, then began removing funds from the account.
The State Bar Court judge found her culpable of intentionally and unilaterally removing the funds before the dispute over them was resolved.

In mitigation, Denevi entered into an extensive stipulation regarding facts and the admissibility of evidence and had practiced law for 11 year without a record of discipline. She was also afforded nominal weight for the character evidence submitted by nine individuals--only one of whom demonstrated a knowledge of the underlying misconduct, as well as moderate weight for evidence of volunteer and pro bono work and for emotional and financial difficulties she experienced during her father's final illness and death, which coincided with the time period of the misconduct.

Darryl Wayne Genis, State Bar #93806, Santa Barbara (December 29, 2017)

Genis was suspended from practicing law for 60 days and placed on probation for two years following an appeal of a hearing judge's decision to impose an admonition in lieu of discipline for the misconduct of making false statements to a superior court judge during a trial.

Genis represented a client charged with driving under the influence, facing a prosecutor with whom he had a contentious relationship. During a recess in the case, while the prosecutor left the courtroom briefly, Genis walked over to a shared podium and exhibit box in the room three times: once, appearing to take pictures of the prosecutor's documents with his cell phone, and another time, moving a document the prosecutor used--a laminated placard listing objections--and placing it under a blotter.

The prosecutor alerted the judge that he was missing the document and voiced his suspicions that Genis had hidden it. The judge then questioned Genis about whether he had touched or moved the prosecutor's documents, which he denied several times, in addition to "categorically" denying any wrongdoing. A videotape of the courtroom, however, revealed that he had in fact moved the document. The judge subsequently charged Genis with contempt based on abuse of process, though the criminal contempt charge was later dismissed.

The State Bar Court panel found the dismissal did not bar the instant disciplinary proceeding based on the same facts. The panel also reviewed the courtroom videotape and found Genis culpable of willfully seeking to mislead a judge, misconduct which also involves moral turpitude.

In aggravation, Genis had a prior record of discipline imposed just five months before the misconduct at issue that also involved bullying court officers and significantly harmed the administration of justice.

In mitigation, he was given limited weight for his testimony about performing community service, in which he provided no details about the work he performed or the extent of his involvement.

Motaz M. Gerges, State Bar #202175, Northridge (December 2, 2017)

Gerges was suspended from the practice of law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to two acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter: commingling personal and client funds in a trust account and issuing checks from that account, which involves moral turpitude.

Despite an earlier warning letter from the State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel about suspect trust accounting practices, Gerges issued two checks to his paralegal to cover work performed for his legal practice, drawing on personal funds commingled in his client trust account. The bank refused to negotiate both checks, as the account held insufficient funds to cover them.
After the bank notified the State Bar of the returned checks, Gerges hired an accountant to oversee and monitor the account.

In aggravation, Gerges committed multiple acts of misconduct.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 16 years, harmed neither clients nor the administration of justice with his wrongdoing, and provided references from nine individuals taken from the legal and general communities who attested to his good character as well as his pro bono work on behalf of clients.

Kyle Sheldon Hackett, State Bar #194658, Los Angeles (December 4, 2017)

Hackett was suspended from practicing law pending proof of passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination as required in the terms of a previous disciplinary order.

Alexandros Kagianaris, State Bar #218852, Beverly Hills (December 30, 2017)

Kagianaris was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to pleading nolo contendere to one count of trespassing (Cal. Penal Code §602(o)). The offense is a misdemeanor.

In the underlying matter, Kagianaris was seen shoplifting just over $100 in merchandise from a store offering health and fitness products. A charge of petty theft was dismissed as part of a negotiated plea. The State Bar Court judge found the facts and circumstances surrounding the violation involved moral turpitude.

In aggravation, Kagianaris had a prior record of discipline.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, avoiding the necessity of a trial and saving the State Bar time and resources.

Peter D. King, State Bar #282249, Livermore (December 26, 2017)

King was suspended in the interim pending final disposition of his conviction of second degree burglary (Cal. Penal Code §459). The offense is a felony involving moral turpitude.

Daphne Lori Macklin, State Bar #117189, Sacramento (December 8, 2017)

Macklin was suspended from practicing law for 90 days and placed on probation for three years after she stipulated to committing 19 acts of professional misconduct related to four client matters.

Her wrongdoing included: violating a court order by failing to appear at a hearing to show cause why she should not be sanctioned; two counts each of failing to respond to clients' reasonable inquiries about their cases, failing to keep clients informed about significant developments in their cases, practicing law when she was not legally entitled to do so, and holding herself out as entitled to practice law when she was not--misconduct involving moral turpitude; three counts of failing to perform legal services with competence, as well as improperly withdrawing from representation; and four counts of failing to cooperate with the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing she was alleged to have committed.

Macklin was hired by the various clients involved in the instant matter to handle a range of legal matters--including debt collection, personal injury, invasion of privacy, and criminal defense. In each case, shortly after being retained, she failed to appear at court hearings or take other necessary steps to further the clients' interests or respond to their queries. During some periods of the representations, Macklin was suspended from practicing law due to failing to comply with Minimum Continuing Legal Education requirements.

In describing each of the case complaints, the State Bar Court judge noted that prior to her misconduct, Macklin and her significant other were involved in a physical altercation--after which she moved out of her home, spent three months living with friends, and "progressively lost the ability to manage her law practice" before seeking psychotherapy services and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

In aggravation, Macklin committed multiple acts of misconduct.

In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law for approximately 29 year without a record of discipline. In addition, she was allotted mitigating weight based on a declaration and character letters asserting that her misconduct was due to the effects of an abusive home life and the subsequent mental health difficulties for which she sought medical assistance.

James Robert Miller, State Bar #60351, Redondo Beach (December 11, 2017)

Miller was suspended from the practice of law pending final disposition of his convictions of five counts of wire fraud (18 U.S.C. §1343) and four counts of filing false tax returns (26 U.S.C. §7206(1)). The offenses are felonies involving moral turpitude as a matter of law.

David Charles Peterson, State Bar #69272, Morro Bay (December 2, 2017)

Peterson was suspended from practicing law for one year and placed on probation for three years after he stipulated to five separate alcohol-related driving convictions; the State Bar Court judge determined the facts and circumstances surrounding the two most recent convictions involved moral turpitude.

In aggravation, Peterson committed multiple acts of misconduct and showed no remorse or insight into his wrongdoing until his fifth DUI conviction--after which he submitted to in-patient residential treatment, attended court-ordered programs, submitted to drug and alcohol testing, and attended AA meetings.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for more than 24 years before committing the first offense, suffered emotional and mental difficulties triggering a relapse of alcohol abuse--now under treatment, and submitted letters from 12 individuals attesting to his good character as well as evidence of his pro bono legal work.

Steven Robert Rafalovich, State Bar #217976, Corona Del Mar (December 11, 2017)

Rafalovich was suspended from the practice of law following his conviction of possessing a cane sword (Cal. Penal Code §20510).

The felony conviction is deemed final--and the case has been referred to the Hearing Department for a hearing and decision as to whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense involved moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting professional discipline.

Edward Joseph Roenker, Jr., State Bar #181658, Norfolk, Virginia (December 18, 2017)

Roenker was suspended from practicing law pending proof of passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam as mandated in an earlier State Bar disciplinary order.

Gerald Howard Sternberg, State Bar #96110, Hazel Park, Michigan (December 26, 2017)

Sternberg was suspended from the practice of law pending proof of passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination--one of the conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order.

PROBATION

Michael Todd Grehl, State Bar #228689, Valley Center (December 8, 2017)

Grehl was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to pleading guilty to one count of resisting a peace officer (Cal. Penal Code §148), a misdemeanor. After the conviction was final, the matter was referred to the State Bar's Hearing Department for a hearing and determination of whether the offense involved moral turpitude or warranted professional discipline.

In the underlying matter, Grehl became involved in a heated argument with his girlfriend. As the matter escalated, he shoved and punched her, causing cuts and bruises to her head. She then left the residence and called the police. Grehl refused to give a statement to investigating officers, either by phone or in person. He was then arrested for inflicting corporal injury on a spouse; while being led to a patrol vehicle, he tussled with the officer, who suffered injuries to his shoulder and knee.

The State Bar Court judge determined that the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident did not involve moral turpitude, but did warrant professional discipline.
In aggravation, Grehl physically harmed two individuals and demonstrated a lack of insight into his misconduct by blaming others for it and maintaining he was unfairly attacked.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law 14 years without a record of discipline.

PUBLIC REPROVAL

Michael Conroy McMahon, State Bar #71909, Carpinteria (December 20, 2017)

McMahon was publicly reproved after he stipulated to pleading no contest to driving while having a blood alcohol content of .08% or higher with a prior conviction (Cal. Veh. Code §23152(b)) and of driving under the influence of alcohol (Cal. Veh. Code §23152(a)). Both offenses are misdemeanors.

McMahon was stopped by a highway patrol officer after he was observed driving erratically in a car without tail lights. He admitted to drinking and taking prescription pain medication after he was stopped and failed to pass field sobriety tests and preliminary alcohol screening tests at the scene.

The State Bar Court judge determined the facts and circumstances surrounding the violation did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other conduct warranting professional discipline. The judge also noted two prior convictions involving driving under the influence.

In mitigation, McMahon entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law approximately 40 years without a record of discipline, and submitted 14 letters from individuals representing a range in both the legal and general communities--all of whom attested to his good character and pro bono service.

#345930

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